When your name is Quincy Jones and you are speaking, people are bound to pay attention. And pay attention they did, with a particular eagerness, earlier this year when Jones, all of 84 years young and plenty lucid enough to quote full aphorisms from compatriots and mentors decades after they were spoken, gave freewheeling interviews to GQ and Vulture about his protegee Michael Jackson being “as Machiavellian as they come,” of an alleged hook-up between Marlon Brando and Richard Pryor, and about Paul McCartney’s shoddy bass playing, among other strains of spilled tea. True or false as any of the gossip fodder may be, Jones has been around long enough to have seen some shit, and, as he says to a sisterly vocal duo late in the 124-minute documentary “Quincy,” available now on Netflix: “I’m too old to be full of it.”
Perhaps that PR gaffe was why, when I heard “Quincy” co-director Rashida Jones on NPR’s weekday morning deep dive “1A,” she was so at-the-ready. Answering host Joshua Johnson’s question about whether Q’s hospitalization in 2015 added extra urgency to the making of Rashida and Alan Hicks’ 2018 film, she’d said “No,” pointing out that filming began long before her father’s most recent health scares and adding: “His life is worthy of a film regardless of the circumstances that happened while we were filming.” In the two-hour-plus, nonlinear collection of clips that makes up “Quincy,” Rashida Jones and Hicks clearly make it their business to demonstrate why that worthiness is not in question.
We first meet Q thusly, a sensei to senseis, waxing bitterly nostalgic in a studio for Dr. Dre’s “The Pharmacy.” He dishes about his upbringing in the South Side of Chicago, pointing out a scar on his hand he got from being nailed to a fence with a switchblade at age 7, and another on his temple he got from being on the business end of an ice pick when he was 11 and, in his words, “wanted to be a gangster.” He drops ascetic, monk-ly mantras like, “To know where you came from makes it easier to get where you are going.” He implies an encyclopedic memory of which pop stars were born under which astrological signs. A montage of Jones’ accomplishments flashes by: album covers, footage from the “We Are the World” sessions, a troika of posters for Sidney Poitier films with Jones scores. All is glitzy and moonlit and glamorous.
And then, the sun comes up. Quincy and Rashida are taking a ride. The light is a little less forgiving, the camera is wobbly; Rashida confesses she’s a novice. She broaches the possibility of him moderating his drinking, and grimaces over his confessed loss of appetite. It’s that daughterly lens through which we see the remainder of the film, whether or not Rashida’s in the frame — and mostly, she’s not.
What follows is a gloriously hardscrabble story, one in which Q’s preternatural genius and tenacity, along with a ballsy boost from Dinah Washington, yields a whirlwind of connections and victories that both secured his place among the black creative royalty of the day, threatened his health and distanced him from the successive family units he created with Jeri Caldwell, Ulla Andersson and Peggy Lipton (Rashida Jones’ mother). The director’s eye is kind, but not sentimental. Clips rarely linger for more than a few seconds, in a lengthy barrage of sociopolitical impossibles made possible. Jones becomes Frank Sinatra’s trusted arranger at 29. He studies with Nadia Boulanger, linking him to fellow musical giant Igor Stravinsky by a single degree. He popularizes, wildly, the long-format music video with Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” He discovers Oprah and paints “The Color Purple” the perfect shade of musical indigo. He coaches an up-and-coming singer from Cameroon in how to make his vocals percussive against a legato background. And, everywhere he goes, he makes friends and lifelong fans. Perhaps it’s because, as far as we can tell from the film, he gives nothing less than a full lifetime’s perspective and lightness to each human interaction, recalling pearls of wisdom from Ray Charles and Count Basie in moments of Zen self-awareness, ever aware that he’s among the last men of his creative class still standing.
If I’ve one gripe, it’s that Jones’ music itself is underutilized as a ready-made film score unto itself. Less-heralded compositions — and, of course, iconic pieces like the “Sanford and Son” theme “The Streetbeater,” the Brothers Johnson’s “Stomp” and Leslie Gore’s “It’s My Party” — are used as plot, but not as paint. I can’t help but imagine that a keen combing through the Jones repertoire might have made for some sonic (and maybe even sweetly ironic) substance for moments like the one in which Jones ponders the idea that “Your music can never be more or less than you are as a human being.” With so many staccatos and string section swirls and funkified accents with which to work, might not an incisive musical director have made the soundtrack as clever and responsive as the cinematography?
That minor beef aside, let there be no mistake: The strength of “Quincy” lies in the showing, not the telling. Loving daughter lens notwithstanding, “Quincy” manages to skirt around schmaltzy voiceover sycophant territory by a plentiful margin, opting instead for hard facts, tightly woven together. After all, editing a film down to its essence is not entirely unlike distilling a musical arrangement down to its essential core. Here, Hicks and Rashida Jones have done just that.